The Grand Canyon basketball team features seven foreign players from five different countries. Two of them are the tallest players on the team, Roberts Blumbergs and Alessandro Lever. The twin towers are just freshmen, but Antelopes head coach Dan Majerle sees great potential in the pair. “At that size they’re both ultra talented, which is great because they are both 6’10”. So if they keep working at it, they both have a chance to be really good and make some money.”
Blumbergs hails from Ventspils, Latvia, a port city on the Baltic Sea with a population of just under 40,000 people. The freshman forward was 7 years old when he was introduced to the game of basketball. “I wanted to be a soccer player at first, but I have an older brother and he was playing basketball. He was coming home from his practices and going in the backyard dribbling a ball. I was looking at him and going I want to try that too. He taught me a lot of moves, so I decided why not try basketball and that is how I started.” Blumbergs said.
Blumbergs blossoming skills allowed him the opportunity to move away from home when he was 16 years old to further his game. “I moved to Germany and while I was there, I played for 2 different teams. I was there for two and a half seasons. I played for a third division team and then I moved to a first division team. That was a great experience to play against older guys, grown men, players as old as 28 years old. At that time I was 16, 17 years old. It was hard at the beginning, but once you adjust to it, it was pretty good. They were really physical. I learned a lot from them. After I finished my last season in Germany, I moved to the Czech Republic and I played there for half a season, and then I came here.”
Blumbergs is a smooth player who can handle the ball and shoot from the perimeter, much like two of his favorite NBA stars Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo. The native of Latvia is still adjusting to a different brand of basketball here in the United States. “The physicality, the going up and down, being aggressive every time. In Europe, the game is a little slowed down. That was the biggest thing you had to adjust to.” Majerle adds, “Roberts is getting better. He just didn’t understand how hard he’s got to play when he first got here. He’s starting to figure it out. Recently he’s started to practice a little harder, starting to get a little bit more physical, taking the ball to the basket.”
Lever grew up in Bolzano, Italy, a region in the northeast part of the country set in a valley amid hilly vineyards. “It’s a small city of 100,000 people next to Austria surrounded by mountains. Basketball is not the main sport over there. It’s hockey, soccer, handball, and volleyball. I started playing at the club that my grandfather founded.” Lever said. Lever played for Grissin Bon Reggio Emilia as well as the 18 and under Italian national team before coming to GCU.
“Back in Italy it was a more tactical game. Here it is more athletic, more running, and jumping. It’s a different kind of basketball. It’s also more physical.” Majerle says, “He works extremely hard. He’s getting better. We’re concentrating on getting him into the post and making some moves, and I think he’s doing that. He just rushes a bit once in a while. He’s got to get better at rebounding which he will. Physicality he has a problem with, but skill wise he’s pretty good.” Lever enjoys watching LeBron James and Kevin Love play, but his teammates and coaches liken him to another All Star. “Here they call me Marc Gasol. I am big and a little slow at times.” Also like Gasol, Lever has a nice feel for the game, but he knows there is still much to work on. “I have to improve my athleticism, learn how to jump faster and higher, and improve my body.”
Lever and Blumbergs are not only trying to fit into a new team this season, but they’re also adjusting to a new culture. “When I first got here I was having problems trying to understand what they were wanting me to do. I couldn’t understand what Coach Majerle was saying to me sometimes, but I feel like I am improving in understanding the language. Every day you have to talk to everybody in English and it helps you improve a lot.” Lever said. Blumbergs adds, “I lived with an American family for almost two years in Germany, so I picked up my English skills pretty well there. So there’s no problem.” Both players though have found comfort in cuisine. “I basically like all of the food. I like hamburgers and french fries. I’m happy I like that food, but I do miss home cooked meals from my mom. Pasta, chicken, and things like that.” Blumbergs said. Lever adds, “Back in Italy I miss pasta and pizza. The food is different here. I really like hamburgers. Here I also like Cibo Pizzeria and Pizzeria Bianco.” GCU is hoping the pair will be feasting on opponents for years to come in the valley of the sun.